Mieczysław Jałowiecki - a forgotten hero of the battle for Polish Gdańsk

Two trusted companions, a gun and a determination to revive the nation after the hardships of war and partition were all that Mieczysław Jałowiecki had when he embarked on a seemingly impossible diplomatic mission to Gdańsk. His courageous efforts would help Poland bolster its new found identity in Gdansk and through his vision and drive obtain the strategically important Westerplatte peninsula. Despite his valuable contribution to Poland few people recognise his name today. Andrzej Jałowiecki, the great-grandson of the First Delegate of the Polish Government in the Free City of Gdańsk, is trying to restore his great-grandfathers rightful place in the minds of current and future generations.


polishhistory: When we think of the rebirth of the Polish state in 1918, we generally refer to the most commonly known figures, such as Józef Piłsudski or Ignacy Paderewski. However, many others who are equally distinguished are forgotten – one of them is Mieczysław Jałowiecki. Who was the man, who headed the first conspiratorial delegation of the Polish government in Gdańsk?

Andrzej Jałowiecki: Mieczysław came from the aristocratic Pieriejasławski-Jałowiecki family. As he wrote in his memoirs: “Our family belonged to the Rurykowicz family which in Russia meant a great deal. However, we felt very Polish, and this in Russia was a huge disadvantage.” Mieczysław’s family owed its high position not only to their decent. His father General Bolesław Jałowiecki had a distinguished career in both economic and political realms as a member of the Russian Duma and an outstanding railroad builder, and founder of the First Society of Railways in Russia. His mother Aniela Witkiewicz was the youngest sister of renowned painter Stanisław Witkiewicz and aunt to the famous artist Witkacy.

Andrzej Jałowiecki – the great-grandson of the First Delegate of the Polish Government in the Free City of Gdańsk at his family’s former Syłgudyszki estate

Owing to his father’s great merits and family background, Mieczysław received a thorough education – he graduated from the Imperial College in St. Petersburg and then studied economics, chemistry and agronomy in Riga, Halle and Bonn. In addition, he was fluent in several languages including Russian, English, French, German, Swedish, Lithuanian and of course Polish, which opened the way for an international career. He worked as an attaché at the Russian Embassy in Berlin, as an advisor to the Ministry of Agriculture in St. Petersburg, and as director of the Russo-Baltic Society under whose mission he worked in the United Kingdom. In addition – or perhaps most of all – he was a landowner, the owner of the  exemplary Syłgudyszki and Otulana estates in present day Lithuania, which were both extremely prosperous and modern for their time. It can thus be said that until the outbreak of the Bolshevik revolution, he belonged to one of the wealthiest and most influential classes of the tsarist empire.

What happened after the revolution in 1917? What was the fate of the Polish landowners inhabiting the territory of the empire then?

As a result of the Bolshevik revolution, Polish landowners were deprived of all land and property. Mieczysław Jałowiecki lost the huge wealth and all of his family’s holdings. He was subsequently forced to flee Russia and Lithuania for fear of the Bolsheviks. He first traveled to the Vilnius Region, but the situation there proved to be just as unstable. Lithuania’s separatist aspirations, social unrest and, above all, the growing threat of the Red Army – prompted the Lithuanian landowners, led by Mieczysław to form a delegation that would travel to Warsaw in order to obtain the help of the Polish state. My great-grandfather had the whole operation planned out; he would obtain aid from Poland and return to Vilnius with supplies to actively defend it. His fate, however, took him in a completely different direction.

Mieczysław Jałowiecki’s identification papers as the First Delegate of the Polish Government in the Free City of Gdańsk

Instead of Vilnius, he ended up in the Free City of Gdańsk.

Yes, at the behest of Józef Piłsudski – his close relative – he was appointed by the then Minister of Provision, Antoni Minkiewicz, to the position of General Delegate of the Ministry of Provision to the city of Gdańsk. Several days later, Prime Minister Ignacy Paderewski extended Mieczysław’s authority and appointed him as the first Delegate of the Polish Government in Gdańsk. On this complicated and dangerous mission, he could only take two associates and a word of caution from his uncle – Chief of State Józef Piłsudski: “If you do not please us – a bullet to the head awaits you. I you do not please the Germans, you will get a bullet from them, try to avoid both. These are my instructions.”

Mieczysław Jałowieckis mission in the Free City of Gdańsk was centred around the American Relief Mission for Poland. What was this mission?

Food supplies in the reborn Poland were tragically scarce. Unable to satisfy the need for food or medicine on its own, the Polish government decided to seek help from abroad. It came from across the ocean, from Herbert Hoover, later president of the United States. As part of the American Relief Administration established for this purpose, the Americans pledged to provide Poland with food, medicine, arms and other necessary  equipment to help Poland rebuild. The main problem was that the cargo had to be received and then transported onwards. Formally, Gdańsk was still considered a territory belonging to Germany, and its authorities would not agree to let any Polish organisations to operate in the territory – apart from three Poles, who acted as members of the American aid mission.

With the help of two associates, Witold Wańkowicz (his cousin) and Admiral Michał Borowski, Mieczysław organised the entire mission supplying humanitarian aid from the USA to Poland. Thanks to his efforts, 55,000 wagons of food reached Poland, which was in the grips of poverty after the war. In addition he managed to get through vital supplies of medicine, weapons and other necessary resources. The mission was worthy of a James Bond story, but without an Aston Martin, instead he had a railway system, a fleet of locomotives and a Browning pistol with which he defended himself and his colleagues.

Mieczysław Jałowiecki

How was the Polish delegation received in Gdańsk? What was the mood in the city at the time?

The situation in Gdańsk after the war was very difficult, largely due to the unclear status of the city. The question of its sovereignty aroused lively discussion among participants of the Paris Peace Conference, and the decision to create the Free City of Gdańsk only came in the spring of 1919. However, before this occurred, the government in Berlin tried at all costs to protect itself from losing such a valuable city, inhabited in large by a German population. Thus, when Jałowiecki and his associates came to Gdańsk on the 30th January 1919, they were met with a decidedly unfavourable and hostile reaction from its inhabitants. German terror prevailed in the city, and the German population organised numerous hostile demonstrations against the Polish delegation, obstructing the delivery of American aid to Poland. There was even an attack on the train carrying the first transport of food, which my great-grandfather only managed to survive with the help of his pistol and a cool head.

Despite all the upheavals, he never quit. He knew he had an important mission to complete. Mieczysław documented the situation in Gdańsk which significantly helped the Polish delegation at the peace conference in Paris, providing them with important arguments in the fight for Gdańsk. He showed great diplomatic skills, cleverly navigating between the British, Americans, Germans and representatives of other countries all of whom had completely different interests or political visions. Jałowiecki was able to effectively build diplomatic relations and skilfully use them for the good of Poland.

But that’s not the only thing he managed to achieve. We are often met with the notion that Poland owes its gratitude to Mieczysław Jałowiecki for Westerplatte. Why?

When Mieczysław arrived in Gdańsk, the Westerplatte peninsula was an ordinary seaside resort with a few villas and a spa house with a restaurant. Mieczysław quickly noticed its importance and understood that whoever owned Westerplatte would control the entrance to the port of Gdańsk. Before British and Bolshevik agents became interested in the peninsula, he decided to acquire it for the Polish state. He presented the idea to Prime Minister Paderewski, who reacted with great enthusiasm. The problem, however, was that the nations coffers were empty. Mieczysław had to buy Westerplatte, from its German owner with his own funds. In a clandestine operation Mieczysław Jałowiecki secured a loan and purchased the peninsula with the promise that when Gdańsk was taken over by the Republic of Poland, the Polish government would purchase Westerplatte from him.

Arkonia corporation meeting, London 1959. In the center General Władysław Anders, second from the left is Mieczysław Jałowiecki

In spite of all the complication, the transaction was finally completed and the peninsula found its way to Poland. In a similar way, Mieczysław Jałowiecki also purchased a number of other properties of strategic importance for the then and present-day Gdańsk.

Less than twenty years later, Westerplatte, purchased by Jałowiecki, became the target of a German attack that triggered the Second World War. What was Mieczysław’s fate? How did he react to the attack on the strategic peninsula?

In 1920, Mieczysław Jałowiecki became disillusioned with the policy of the Polish government and he left Gdańsk to settle in the Kamień estate near Kalisz. He returned to the life of the landed gentry and took up what he really loved – agriculture and the social cause. When in 1939, the radios reported that “Westerplatte was still defending itself” while bravely resisting German aggression, Jałowiecki left Poland. He was heartbroken. After all, he was not young enough to actively engage in the country’s defence. Unable to fight with a weapon, he joined the fight for the Polish spirit with a pen.

After leaving Poland, he settled in Great Britain, where he was active in the Polish community. He left behind many brochures and books, mainly in the fields of agriculture and global affairs. He also penned vast volumes of diaries detailing the history of his life and the great changes that took place in 19th-century Russia, including the decline of the Polish gentry and noble traditions. These memoirs are of significant value as they are written from the perspective of an individual – an eyewitness, and often participant. Through extremely colourful descriptions, enriched with a hint of irony, we meet well-known figures such as – Rasputin, Tsar Nicholas II, Józef Piłsudski and Ignacy Paderewski, as well as a huge array of anonymous figures who remain on the margins of history. Mieczysław presented them as people of flesh and blood, with all their weaknesses and faults, which is impossible to find in  traditional history books.

The wedding of Mieczysław Jałowiecki with his first wife Julia Elżbieta Anna Wańkowicz, June 30, 1910

Thanks to the efforts of his grandson, Michał Jałowiecki, it was possible to publish his memoirs in three parts “Na Skraju Imperium”, “Wolne Miasto” and “Requiem Dla Ziemianstwa”. “Wolne Miasto” was the last book read to Pope John Paul II before his death. He also left a collection of over 1,000 watercolours deposited at Hoover Institution Archives depicting a long forgotten world of landscapes, estates, palaces, noble houses and traditions – a world he loved deeply, and which he had witnessed disappearing into oblivion.

Nevertheless, Jałowiecki never forgot about Poland itself. What can we learn from the First Delegate of the Polish Government in Gdańsk?

Above all patriotism and dedication to the service of the homeland with an uncompromising perseverance in the pursuit of goals, even if the situation seems hopeless. Because that’s what Mieczysław faced throughout his life. An educated, wealthy man with a land estate of nearly 42,000 hectares, and numerous factories, mines and holdings, who lost everything that he and several generations of his family had worked for because of the Bolshevik revolution. Despite this, he never gave up and took up the fight many times – first for his beloved Vilnius Region, and then for Poland, risking his life and exposing himself to both the German population and his countrymen. A representative of one of the most important families, he died abroad with only 63 pounds and a trunk filled with historical documents and several volumes of memoirs.

Mieczysław Jałowiecki with his grandson Michał Jałowiecki

Today little is said about Mieczysław Jałowiecki, it is easier for us to appreciate the merits of soldiers fighting with arms. Meanwhile, there are many such “silent” and forgotten heroes like Mieczysław Jałowiecki, whose struggle to rebuild a country took a slightly different form – enormous organisational effort, economic handling of resources and the ability to manage national goods or to find solutions in seemingly impossible situations. I hope that his character will at least to some extent contribute towards restoring their memory.

Interviewer: Natalia Pochroń
Translation: Andrzej Jałowiecki